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  • Writer's pictureJOHN OSLER'S UPBEAT Admin



This week jazz pianist Johnny O’Neil will be back in Detroit and there will be a homecoming party for him at the Dirty dog Jazz Café.

Pianist Johnny O’Neil was born in Detroit, and he plays like it. His piano and singing are beautiful, but sometimes there is a sadness that comes through his luscious phrasing. Johnny has had his share of triumphs and setbacks. Every once in a while he makes a therapeutic trip back to his hometown. This week Johnny will return to the Dirty Dog for four nights. Each night he will play to a crowd that understands his journey and his music because they have also lived it. Johnny will hunch his shoulders a little while he plays and tilt his head a little when he sings.He seems to be hearing the music in his head and then sharing it with us. His hands will find keys that ordinarily shouldn’t work, but they do. He will sing with a wheeze and then with a harsh rasp. It all works! His friends know this mild figure at the piano may be some kind of intuitive genius. He is a giant of touch and feeling.

The guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel said, “My jaw dropped when I heard him play piano — and then my heart dropped when I heard him sing,”

Johnny sat down at a piano when he was a child and just started playing. He still doesn’t read music. He started his career at age 13 working at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit  as church pianist on Sundays for $10 per service. He then played at parties in Detroit as a teen.  He hasn’t stopped since, and Johnny estimates that he now has 1500 songs in his head. These tunes stream out into any room he is playing with a touch that is uniquely Johnny’s. He plays each tune like he remembers hearing it the first time. Critics and peers consider Johnny the leading exponent of mid-20th-century jazz piano technique.  He probably listened to a lot of Art Tatum, whom he was chosen to play in the movie ” Ray”. The great Barry Harris mentored Johnny and said of him.“He’s a very special cat. If ever somebody sounded like Art Tatum, it’s him. He’s got it all,”

I have heard it said that “If Johnny O’Neal didn’t play the piano, he would rank as one of the more compelling vocalists in jazz, and If he didn’t sing a note, he would stand as one of the most accomplished pianists in jazz.”

He has developed a following that is deserved. Johnny is authentically one of a kind. He is self- taught, and he has had a great teacher. He has a large playlist, and he reintroduces us to the true meaning of each song.


Judy Adams in her wonderful blog for the Dirty Dog includes the bios of the outstanding artists she writes about. The bios often start with “born in Detroit” and then go on to list all their accomplishments. These artists often will be coming back to Detroit for an appearance. Detroit will welcome them back with open arms. This is what we do.

If you are born in Detroit you will always be a Detroiter, and that is a pretty good thing to be, especially if you are a musician. Detroit musicians carry a label that reads ” knows his/her stuff”. When they wander off they will be in demand and likely find success.

Detroit is not alone.There are a lot of good players across our country and throughout the world. Communities of artists across America have produced talented musicians that have something to say that can only come from their unique local culture. However, all communities don’t have equal opportunities to thrive and grow to their full potential. Detroit has been lucky. it has had a rich history of keeping music alive and vibrant. Our music has alway been important  in our city. Our music has helped us  maintain our pride and hope when things looked dark. We had our music, and it was really good. No one could ever tell us it wasn’t.

Some cities in the USA have historically been breeding grounds for young jazz artists. Philadelphia, Kansas City, New Orleans, Cleveland and Detroit seem to churn out a disproportional quantity of capable jazz musicians.  These are the musicians who continually pass on the best parts of what they know.  These cities honor their traditions. They appreciate their hometowns,

However, New york, Chicago and Los Angeles are powerful magnets that offer a place to expand their craft. Players leave their hometowns to get a better chance to be heard and exchange ideas.  When this process works, jazz thrives. When Detroit’s great players stay in town or return, Detroit thrives.



Stanley Clarke came into the room where the young musicians were preparing to play and sat down in a chair facing them. Stanley Clarke was in Detroit in his role as the Detroit Jazz Festival’s Resident Artist for 2019. This remarkable jazz bassist offered to be part of a master class held at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café. When he entered the club he was greeted with awe and respect. Great artists can be a little intimidating. Any intimidation melted away under the weight of Stanley Clarke’s manner and words, while the awe and respect carried on.

Without speaking he waved to them to start playing. While they played he did what jazz artists do best.  He listened.

John Osler


April 10 -13


Detroiter Johnny O’Neal is a legendary jazz pianist and band leader.  Johnny has played with: Art Blakey, Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, Nancy Wilson, Joe Pass, Lionel Hampton, Anita O’Day, Sonny Stitt, Carmen McRae, Kenny Burrell, Benny Golson, Sarah Vaughn, Wynton Marsalis, and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. This week he will be surrounded by friends in what will be a very special occasion, his homecoming.


April 17 -20


Straight Ahead’s founding members, the “Rhythm Sisters” (Marion Hayden on bass, Aleena Orr on piano and Gayelyn McKinney on drums),  will be joined by special guest John Douglas on trumpet and Yancy on saxophone. These Grammy-nominated artists have traveled throughout the U.S., the Caribbean and Europe, garnering rave reviews. Their dynamic live performances are a celebration of power and joy.

April 24 – 25


Trunino Lowe is a young up and coming trumpet player in Detroit. Serving as a composer, band leader, sideman and mentor at the age of 20, his passion for music shows on and off the band stand.  He has played with some big names of Detroit such as Marion Hayden, Wendell Harrison, Rodney Whitaker, Sean Dobbins, Marcus Elliot, and more. Trunino is currently a student at Wayne State University.

April 26 -27


Ever since 1997, when he moved to New York City from Los Angeles, his hometown, Willie Jones III has been one of the jazz capital’s most prominent drummers. Whether functioning as a savvy bandleader or high-profile sideman, Jones applies to every context an abiding musicality and a tonal personality that, as Wynton Marsalis puts it, is “ever tasteful,” marked by what pianist Eric Reed, his frequent collaborator, calls “a West Coast swagger in his swing, with a looseness that isn’t lackadaisical and an edge that isn’t overwhelming.”

He has played, toured, and recorded with Horace Silver, Roy Hargrove, Hank Jones, Cedar Walton, and Herbie Hancock.

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